Popular development discourse

The narrative of popular development as it pertains to women is best captured by the best-selling book, film series, and social media games, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, written by journalist Nicolas Kristoft and former Goldman Sachs executive and journalist Sheryl WuDunn in 2009, in which the oppression of women in the global South is described as the paramount moral challenge of our era. With a focus on documenting “atrocities and indignities from sex trafficking to maternal mortality, from obstetric fistulas to acid attacks” (Manji, 2009) and an appeal to Westerners to step in to help by bringing “actress-advocates” with him as he rescues girls from brothels in the film, the authors present the economic case for addressing the problem of women’s oppression in the conclusion of their book:

Consider the costs of allowing half a country’s human resources to go untapped. Women and girls cloistered in huts, uneducated, unemployed, and unable to contribute significantly to the world represent a vast seam of human gold that is never mined. The consequence of failing to educate girls is a capacity' gap not only in billions of dollars of GNP but also in billions of IQ points.

(Kristoff and WuDunn, 2009: 239)

This conceptualization of women in the global South, with low IQ, “cloistered in huts”, unemployable and uneducated and unable to contribute to the world due to their oppressive patriarchal cultures, who can best be saved by Western helpers in order to properly contribute to the Gross National Product of their countries, fits neatly' within colonial, development, and neoliberal discourse that positions women of the global South as powerless, alone, without a collective voice, identity or history of organized resistance, in need of saving by the developed world in order to realize their economic value.

To properly unpack the flaws of this discourse and potential of these initiatives, a postcolonial feminist social work perspective will be used to analyze the conceptualization of the problem of the lack of women’s empowerment and gender equality and to rethink these proposed solutions.

Globalization and global inequality

Globalization and global inequality are critically important contextual factors that have shaped the social and economic landscape of women’s experiences and access to power. Globalization is an “intensified global interconnectedness . . . via the mobility and flows of culture, capital, information, resistance, technologies, production [and] people” (Gunewardena and Kingsolver, 2007: 8, as cited in Deepak, 2018: 781). The economic dimensions of globalization are manifested in macroeconomic policies that have undercut social protections, wages, labor rights, public infrastructure, all of which have increased women’s burdens in the home, community, and workplace and decreased their empowerment.

The economic dimensions of globalization are embedded in the political ideology of neoliberalism, a form of capitalism that posits the free market as the best route to global and national economic growth and human well-being. The role of the state is only to create and preserve institutional frameworks characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade in order to liberate individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills (Harvey, 2005). In addition, the upward redistribution to capital owners and managers that perpetuates and increases social inequality can be “regarded as structural to the whole project” (Harvey, 2005: 16).

Neoliberal policies are created and enforced by governments and International Financial Institutions (IFls) including the International Monetary’ Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. World Bank and IMF loans to developing countries enforce neoliberal policies in the form of Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1980s and 1990s, and now austerity and fiscal consolidation programs, ostensibly to prevent or help overcome debt crises and promote economic stability and growth. Neoliberal policies include (1) reducing barriers to trade and foreign investment, including reducing wages, de-unionizing workers, extending working hours and placing workers on precarious contracts (Human Rights Council, 2017); (2) deregulation; (3) cutting public expenditure for social sendees and personnel, including health, education and infrastructure; (4) privatization of government sendees and assets; (5) increasing tax revenues through consumption taxes; (6) eliminating subsidies and reforming pension and health entitlements; and (7) eliminating the concept of the “public good” (Ortiz, Cummins, Capaldo, and Karunanethy, 2015).

Social protections

The erosion of social protections as a consequence of neoliberal policies is a threat to women and vulnerable populations globally. Roughly 55 percent of the world’s population are not covered by social protection (ILO, 2017, as cited in ILO, 2018a). In OECD countries, more than half of all job creation was in the form of non-standard work since the mid-1990s; almost a third of total employment in OECD countries is in temporary and part-time work and selfemployment (OECD, 2015). The generation of employment that is flexible, precarious, insecure, and lacking in social protections for men and women, such as maternity benefits, paid sick leave, pensions, worker compensation, or unemployment insurance (Kirton, 2017) poses a threat to empowerment, equality, and well-being for workers in the global North and South.

Gendered consequences of neoliberal policies

For women, there is an additional burden when social infrastructure previously provided by the state is eroded through neoliberal economic policies in that women and girls are expected to replace these crucial services without pay. These increased responsibilities, such as caring for the young, elderly, and disabled, home schooling, participating in community projects, queuing at foodbanks, has been theorized as the “triple burden” of productive, reproductive and community labor (Moser, 1993, as cited in Maclean, 2017: 254). Thus, the main barrier for women entering the paid workforce, is a paucity of time (Lister, 2003, as cited in Maclean, 2017). In a study on the ways in which women in the global South manage their participation in incomegenerating work with their unpaid care work, the authors found that women “have no time to rest or recuperate from the drudgery of both paid work and unpaid care work. High levels of poverty and lack of public sendees increase the levels of drudgery and heighten the depletion that they and their families face” (Chopra and Zambelli, 2017: 4).

Global inequality

Global inequality encompasses economic inequality and a lack of power in shaping the decisionmaking on the economic and development policies and programs that impact individuals, families, communities, and nations. Global economic inequality is produced and sustained by neoliberalism and the upward distribution of wealth and the increasing lack of labour power. The gap between rich and poor is at its highest level in 30 years in most countries around the world (OECD, 2015).

The global development system has been significantly altered by the unprecedented power of the private sector, a shift that has been fully embraced through the substantial role given to it as a key actor in the achievement of the SDGs. The dominant source of external development finance for middle-income countries is now private financial flows (Gneiting, 2017). The repercussions of this unbalanced role of the private sector in the global development system has been called the financialization of development (Itaman, 2017). This refers to the growing idea that development can be achieved solely through financial development policy and that the presence of the state in development can be replaced with private capital. Itaman argues that the purpose becomes aimed at capturing and including the poor of the global South “into the cycle of financial expropriation, through access to credit . . . [creating] the potential to redirect capital away from developmental investment and into the financial system” (2017: 3). This finance tends to be redirected for speculation and profiteering rather than development purposes (Itaman, 2017). For this reason, it is important for formal financial institutions, whether public or private, to be transparent, regulated, include consumer protections and incorporate some form of governance that includes consumers and community members to ensure that exploitation will not occur.

The role of discourse in shaping responses

The discourse around the need for women of the global South to be saved by the West, and, in this case, by US-based transnational corporations, is supported by popular narratives such as Half the Sky, that focuses solely on violations of women’s rights and ignoring the macro-economic context of neoliberalism and the spaces and places in which women collectively resist, organize, and fight for their rights. As Moeller (2018) argues, in this historical moment, the subject position of the Third World girl is constructed simultaneously as a universalized victim in need of saving and “the answer” to solving the problems of development and growth, hence, “the act of empowering her to fulfill her potential for development becomes an act of saving her” (2018: 12).

As Khandelwal and Freeman (2017) point out, in the film version of Half the Sky, it is the generosity of the predominantly white female film-stars and their emotional transformation, that forms the story with which the audience is meant to identify. They represent the icon of the liberated Western woman. Through the film, Kristof constructs a narrative in which he is the white male savior and a master narrative: “gender inequality in the developing world is caused by unenlightened men, their culture, their religion, and their governmental corruption but never by the predictable working out of capitalist processes that concentrate benefits among a handful of winners” (65).

This echo of colonial discourse, which includes the foregrounding of the liberated Western woman along with the decontextualized list of horrific human rights violations, helps to obscure the commonalities in gender oppression between women of the global North and South and the reality that women’s agency is partial and limited in both geographical arenas, although in different ways and always shaped by race, class, caste, religion, sexuality, and ability. The vision of empowering women and creating gender equality by bringing women into the formal labor force and through financial inclusion ignores trends in the US that show that women in the global North have not been the beneficiaries of gender equality and economic empowerment through these means, as women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations and this gender wage gap differs by race and ethnicity with Hispanic women at the bottom, Black women, White women then Asian women (Hegewisch, 2018). Access to credit and loans for housing, auto, and school with high interest rates places an additional burden on men and women in the US, with debt burdens now surpassing levels from 2008, before the financial crisis (Loesche, 2017).

 
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